Qatar University students have responded with scepticism to the SEC move on the medium of instruction.
By AZMAT HAROON
Qatar University is in the throes of a controversy with the Supreme Education Council (SEC), the regulator of educational institutions in the country, recently asking it to change the medium of instruction literally overnight from English to Arabic in some key faculties such as those of law, media studies, business administration and international affairs.
The move, as expected, has sparked a heated debate across the country with a majority welcoming it arguing that it would promote nationalism and boost the number of students at the university.
Then, there are those who are opposed to the move and they argue that it could adversely impact the university’s standard of education and its international accreditation.
And within the university, the reaction of students and faculty members, particularly from the departments concerned, is one of shock and surprise. They say they came to know about the new decision through media reports and local social networking sites.
This, because the announcement about the decision was officially made a day before the spring holidays began, making it difficult for people to seek confirmation from the university authorities.
Although many students went to their departments in search of answers on Thursday, faculty members as well as administration officials had no clear answers to satisfy them. Infuriated, the students were asked to remain calm and not lend ears to rumors.
The Chairman of Students’ Affairs at QU confirmed that notifications regarding a change in the medium of instruction had been issued to the departments and that they were studying a new action plan.
The SEC decision also calls on QU to abolish the ‘Foundation Programme’ of the university which previously helped students acquire basic skills in English, mathematics and computers, once thought to be critically important, before taking up the main courses.
Members of the university’s senior management held a number of meetings of senior level on Wednesday, a day after the notifications were issued, to discuss the mechanism of implementing the new policy.
According to a local Arabic daily, the mechanism involved a review of some parts of the curriculum and the fate of non-Arab students and faculty members. The meeting was attended by the heads of departments, deans, faculty members and senior management of the university. A source present at the meeting told the daily that the management discussed new methods to calculate teaching hours of the Foundation Program along with the issues involving the university’s international accreditation.
It is believed that a new plan for the Foundation Program would be announced soon and it would be applied to disciplines taught in English only. There is so far no word on the fate of those already enrolled in various courses of the said departments.
What professors say
According to the Arabic daily, QU staffers have welcomed the decision saying that it would promote Qatar’s national identity and allow students to enrol here instead of seeking admissions abroad. They said that the move has put an end to an old controversy among students and faculty members alike about teaching the curriculum in English.
Dr Khalid Al Ali, Director of the Foundation Programme, said that this decision will make it easier for students to get admission to the university. “The Foundation Program will be reviewed and a new plan will be announced soon, but it will be implemented only for special courses that use English as the medium of instruction,” he said.
Al Ali added that a panel was busy studying methods to develop a new Foundation Program that would be able to cope with the changes. “The panel will reevaluate the past records of the Foundation Program and it would study a proposal to reduce the duration of both the Foundation Program and the study of English,” he said.
Some of the senior professors said that the SEC’s decision was not implemented abruptly. “The decision was thoroughly studied before we adopted it,” said a professor from the Arabic department. “The aim is not to boycott the English language but to improve the efficiency of students in academics. Now fluency in English will no longer remain one of the conditions for entering the university,” he said.
Dr Rabia Sabah Al Kuwari said that Arabic should be a priority at all times. “Arabic is the language of the Holy Quran. According to our Constitution too, it is the first language of the country,” he said.
According to Al Kuwari, many years ago there was a decision that made correspondence between ministries, corporations and universities to be compulsorily in Arabic. “This decision defends the previous policies along with the Qatar National Vision 2030,” he said.
The Dean of the College of Business and Economics, Dr Nitham M Hindi, told a newspaper that the decision would not bring down the academic standard of the university, and the ‘market value’ of QU degrees and certificates.
Incidentally, none of the professors who taught courses in English was immediately available for comment.
What students think
The students have largely responded with scepticism. Those who welcomed the decision were not sure how it would be implemented and how will it affect their studies and job prospects.
Others believe that teaching in the Arabic medium will adversely impact the ‘market value’ of QU degrees and make it all the more difficult for students to seek admissions to international universities for higher studies.
“I am a student of economics and management. We cannot study in the Arabic medium because most of the terms used in our subjects are in English. Besides, it’s business studies. We deal with local and international markets, so we need to be qualified in English if we want to work after studies,” said a student.
Some are of the opinion that teaching in Arabic should be made optional and not mandatory.
“Out of almost 18 faculty members in our department, half come from non-Arab backgrounds. Those who are Arabs have studied in the West most of their lives, so it’s easier for them to communicate with us in English than Arabic,” said a third year student of international affairs.
“From what I gather, the university had no idea (about the decision), they came to know of it exactly when we did, through the newspapers. I did call my department as soon as I heard the news and they told me to be patient and wait for an official announcement from the university, which they haven’t done yet because most of us are on vacation,” said Shaima Sharif.
Some students are complaining that references for most subjects are only available in English and that if the medium of instruction changes it would become very difficult to conduct authentic research, since most books in the curriculum of international affairs, media and business studies are in English.
Sections of students, on the other hand, were found celebrating. “I tried almost six times to acquire the 5.5 band in IELTS (the test for a student’s basic knowledge of English for admission), but failed. Now I can join QU without worrying about my English scores,” said a student who did not want to be named.
Another student, lauding the decision, said that Qatar is doing the right thing as countries like France and Germany, for instance, use their native language in teaching. “We should support Arabization, except when using scientific terms which should be in English,” he said.
The opinion among students at large is that they should not be forced to learn a foreign language.
Need for English
in the workplace
In a research titled “Needs of English By Graduates of Qatar University in the Workplace” published in the Journal of Language, Society and Culture, Haifa A Al Buainain, Fouad Khalil Hassan and Ahmed Madani of Qatar University studied the range, need and actual use of English in the workplace in Qatar.
The results of the research showed that English language is highly needed for working in both the state and private sectors in Qatar.
The researchers found that more than 77 percent of respondents in workforce needed to use English in varying degrees which surpassed the 50 percent boundary in an overall need for English. The participants had a similar degree of need for reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in English.
Only 21.6 percent of the respondents said they did not need to use English, though some in this category admitted they needed to use it every now and then. The majority of the participants in the survey had received their education in government schools. Regarding self-assessment of English language proficiency, 38 percent stated that their level of proficiency ranged from weak to average, while 61.5 percent estimated their range from good to excellent.
Listening and speaking at meetings and contact with foreign colleagues was quoted as important for most participants. The researchers concluded that there was a great need for English in the job market.
The recommendations made on the basis of the findings also called for a thorough review of the existing ESL (English as Second Language) courses at QU.
The impact on national education policy
In the past few years, education in Qatar has undergone a sea-change and is labelled ‘Education For A New Era’. According to Mohammed A A Manasreh, author of a study titled ‘English in an Islamic Cultural Context: Qatari Student’s Attitudes to English and Advised Practices’, an action research study based on the findings of one of the Independent Schools in Qatar, part of the educational reforms stems from the national curriculum standards, which are set by the Centre for British Teachers. Schools have to meet those standards through whatever methodology, approach or materials they find suitable.
Manasreh also found that 89 percent students said they liked English, while 95 percent considered English language a means for a better job. It is no surprise then to see an influx of native-English speaking teachers into many secondary schools in Qatar.
Keeping that in view, the change of the medium of instruction at Qatar’s national university from English to Arabic for some key streams seems to be a contradiction as for the country’s grassroots education policy is concerned. Children who have previously studied English textbooks and have been instructed in English, would find it all the more difficult to follow an Arabic curriculum.
The decision, perhaps, makes sense for the students of law as court proceedings in the country are carried out in Arabic. But for people interested in media studies, international affairs and business administration, or instance, the dilemma is whether to go to Qatar University or seek education elsewhere.
The problem with institutions that impart education in the national language, especially higher studies, is that they limit scope for students in the global employment market. In this case, although Arabic is spoken in 23 countries and ranked 5th among the most spoken languages in the world, for undergraduate and postgraduate students to be able to conduct any kind of research, they would still need to rely on publications of the West, which can often be found only in English language. This is in addition to the fact that books and other resources borrow heavily from concepts and theories that were developed in the West in the last two centuries or so.
The new decision is in essence a burden on the faculty and administration of QU. One of the key reasons why QU climbed the ranks of universities in the world was because of its research and publications in English, which also helped it to gain international accreditation.
The SEC decision also means that the fate of foreign teachers is in a fix. If the deans and heads of departments cannot speak Arabic themselves, how they can be expected to instruct students in Arabic?
The same is true of international students and students from various expatriate communities who joined QU in large numbers in the past few years. It not only ignores the needs of this community in Qatar but also discriminates against those who are currently studying in the university.
Add this page to your favorite Social Bookmarking websites